Remembering Bhutto: History,Clergy and Pakistan

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

The oddest point in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s career as a politician and a statesman was when his National Assembly voted to constitutionally
ex-communicate the Ahmaddiya community from the circle of Islam. Odd because, barring Jinnah and some ethnic leaders from small sub-nationalities, Bhutto was till then the most secular politician in
Pakistan. His support base was mostly left and no where during the election campaign had the PPP given voice to the demand for Ahmadis to
be ex-communicated. There are many theories as to why Bhutto would do it, but an investigation into the history of Ahmadi conflict in Pakistan leads to some astonishing conclusions about the role of
Pakistan’s military and civil establishment and their blatant use of
religious clergy in creating the conditions which might have forced a
popular national politician like Bhutto to opt for such a drastic and
draconian measure.

Pakistan was created as a result of the inability of the Congress
Party to recognize the legitimate secular concerns (such economic and
political safeguards) of the Muslim bourgeoisie represented by the
Muslim League. Instead of relying on secular and liberal Muslim
leaders like Jinnah, who had for much of his career been described as
the Ambassador of Hindu Muslim Unity by the Hindu leadership, the
Congress co-opted the Muslim religious clergy to prove its secular
credentials. Soon the Congress found itself out of sync with the
mass of Muslims. Since Muslims themselves were fragmented into
several sects and schools of thought, Jinnah and the Muslim League
kept theological and purely religious issues out of the main political
discourse. This allowed Jinnah to bring Sunnis, Shias, Ismailis,
Khojas and Ahmadis on one table despite major doctrinal differences
between these groups. It was for this reason that after Pakistan was
created, Jinnah extended his policy of keeping religious doctrine out
to state governance. To drive the point home, he included in his
cabinet a Hindu (Jogindranath Mandal) as a law minister and an Ahmadi
Muslim (Ch. Zafrullah Khan) as his foreign minister.
After 1947, the religious clergy that had opposed Jinnah and the
creation of Pakistan found itself like a fish out of a pond. They
would have all but lost political significance had it not been for the
political weakness of the ruling Muslim League. By 1951 the Muslim
League was without both Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan, the two leaders
who had recognition and mass appeal. Khawaja Nazimuddin who took
over after Liaqat Ali Khan was known as a good honest man but was not
known as a decisive leader. That he was from East Pakistan was an
additional factor which made him undesirable for the West Pakistani
establishment. By January 1953, the religious parties including
Maulana Maududi’s Jamaat-e-Islami had formed the “Majlis-e-Amal” whose
demands were the removal of Ch. Zafrullah Khan as the foreign minister
and declaration of the Ahmadi community as “Non-muslim”. Khawaja
Nazimuddin refused to entertain this demand and when informed of the
chance of 100 000 crazed Mullahs marching onto the Prime Minister
House, merely ordered the doubling of his guard. Violence broke out
in Lahore and Karachi.
Iskandar Mirza, the then Secretary of Defense, took note and wrote to
the Prime Minister:

“The problems created by your personal enemies including Mullahs, if
not dealt with firmly, will destroy the administration of the country…
is religion to destroy the very foundation of the administration of
the premier Muslim state? In Cairo, Sir Zafrullah Khan is being
received with the utmost honour and respect… while in Karachi he is
being abused in public meetings and his photographs are being spat
upon… what then is the position of Pakistan today internationally… for
god’s sake become a courageous leader and take decisive action. Once
you do this, the whole country, with the exception of the rascals,
will really round you…”

Similar warnings were addressed to Mian Mumtaz Daultana, the Chief
Minister of Punjab, who was more interested in using the agitation
against Nazimuddin’s government and thus continued to encourage the
clergy’s movement. On February 27th, 1953, the cabinet approved
stringent measures and the protesters and rioters from the
Majlis-e-Amal were rounded up by the police in Karachi. In Lahore
however the actions taken against the protesters were half hearted and
violence spiraled out of control. In a phone call, Daultana urged the
Prime Minister to immediately accept Majlis-e-Amal’s demands or else
Lahore would be burnt down. The Prime Minister as usual refused to.
Meanwhile the Iskandar Mirza moved and ordered General Musa to move
Sialkot division into Lahore. The first martial law in Pakistan’s
history was thus enforced in Lahore by General Azam Khan, the
commander of the operation. Army soon restored law and order and the
unrest was quashed brutally. A month later, Khawaja Nazimuddin’s
government was dismissed by Governor General Ghulam Muhammad. The
Prime Minister had planned on sending his executive request to the
Queen to remove Ghulam Muhammad. What followed is well known in

These events raise a very important question: Was the Ahmaddiya issue
deliberately fomented by the establishment to do away with the Muslim
League government? With the exception of Jinnah and possibly Liaqat,
the Muslim League did not have a leader who had popular support or
charisma to face off the alliance between civil bureaucracy, military
generals and the entrenched Punjabi feudal latter day Leaguers. It
is well known that after the assassination of Liaqat Ali Khan, a deep
rift had emerged between the professional politicians and the ex-ICS
crew. The ex-ICS crew Ghulam Muhammad, Iskandar Mirza and Ch.
Muhammad Ali were deeply suspicious of Muslim League politicians and
disliked them intensely. Could it be that the Punjabi landlords like
Daultana had conspired in cahoots with the establishment and the Army
to create conditions which would de-stabilize the Bengali led Muslim
League government?

In any event, the result of these unfortunate events was that
Pakistan Army got its first taste of civil government, the
establishment won a major victory over the politicians and Pakistan
began to slip towards martial rule. Even more disturbing was the
willingness of the Pakistani civil and military establishment to use
religious divines to beat down on professional politicians. What is
amazing is that the religious forces have always lent themselves to
such conspiracies against the state of Pakistan and we see the same
events culminating in form of the 17th Amendment and the Lal Masjid
As a politician who had started his career on the shoulders of the
establishment, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto must have been well aware of the
Ahmaddiya issue. As Prime Minister he must have feared that the
Ahmadi issue would be used against him to de-rail his government. It
is possible that the rioting that gripped Punjab over this issue in
1974 was started by the civil-military nexus which felt insulted and
alienated by many of Bhutto’s actions. Bhutto therefore must have
thought it prudent to throw the question to the assembly to settle the
issue once and for all. Unfortunately this could not save him from
the wrath of the all powerful establishment.
Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. The need
of the hour is for Pakistan to revive the vision of Mahomed Ali Jinnah
i.e. of a modern secular democratic state where not just all Muslim
sects but also the Non-Muslim minorities can live in dignity and their
held high as equal citizens of Pakistan. As with the Pakistan
movement, the only way to realize Pakistan’s potential as the world’s
sole Muslim majority nuclear power is to keep religion strictly
separate from governance and administration. Otherwise we will
continue to be held hostage by an unthinking clergy manipulated by
Pakistan’s wretched and entrenched establishment.

Yasser is a lawyer based in Islamabad a regular writer at PTH

Comments are closed.